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James "Tama Jim" Wilson (August 16, 1835 – August 26, 1920) was a Scotlandmarker-born United Statesmarker politician who served as United States Secretary of Agriculture for sixteen years during three presidencies, from 1897 to 1913. He holds the record as the longest-serving United States Cabinet member.

Personal background

Wilson was born in Ayrshiremarker, Scotlandmarker, on August 16, 1835. One of 14 children, he grew up in a farming community near the birthplace of Robert Burns.

His family emigrated to America in 1852, settling in Connecticutmarker before moving to Iowamarker in 1855, establishing a farm near Traermarker in Tama Countymarker. He attended the public schools and Iowa College (now Grinnell College) in Grinnell, Iowamarker.

Elective office

Representative James Wilson
Wilson was elected to the Iowa House of Representativesmarker in 1867, and served as speaker from 1870 to 1871 before becoming a professor of agriculture at what is now Iowa State Universitymarker. He was also appointed to the Board of Trustees (now Regents) of Iowa's public higher educational institutions, serving from 1870 to 1874.

In 1872, he was elected to represent Iowa's 5th congressional district as a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives. It was during this time that he became known as Tama Jim to distinguish him from the Iowa member of the senate, James F. Wilson. In 1874, Wilson was re-elected, serving a second term, but returned to Iowa in 1877. That year he was appointed to the Iowa State Railway Commission, where he served for six years.
In 1882, he ran for Congress for the third time, this time against Democrat Benjamin T. Frederick. Wilson seemingly defeated Frederick in a very close race, but Frederick soon contested the election in the U.S. House. Wilson had been issued an election certificate by the State of Iowa, enabling him to be seated during the contest. The 1882 elections gave Frederick's Democratic Party control of the House.

Through a prolonged evidentiary proceeding in 1883, followed by filibusters that delayed resolution of the contest until the final hours of the Forty-eighth Congress, Wilson's Republican Party colleagues enabled him to retain in office until the final minutes before the end of the final session. Then, Wilson consented to end the filibuster against a vote on the contest, because it was also blocking action on a popular bill to enable former President Ulysses S. Grant to enjoy the financial benefits of a military retirement. On March 4, 1885, with Grover Cleveland's inauguration festivities already starting, the House declared Frederick the winner of the 1882 race, unseated Wilson, seated Frederick, passed the Grant retirement bill, then adjourned. Returning to Iowa from Washington for the second time, Wilson rejoined the faculty at Iowa State, where he would serve as Professor (now Dean) of Agriculture and director of the agricultural experiment station from 1890 to 1897.

Secretary of Agriculture

Wilson rose to national prominence in early 1897 when newly-elected President William McKinley nominated him as his Secretary for Agriculture. During sixteen consecutive years of Republican administrations, Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft retained him in that position. It was not until March 1913, following the election of a Democratic president (Woodrow Wilson) that Wilson left that office. In all, Wilson served as Secretary of Agriculture from March 6, 1897 to March 5, 1913 — the longest duration served by any American cabinet official.

His tenure as Secretary of Agriculture is known as a period of modernization of agricultural methods. He also organized greater food inspection methods, as well as great improvement of many roads across the country.

Life after Washington

After leaving office at age 78, Wilson retired in Iowa. He died in Traer on August 26, 1920, ten days after his eighty-fifth birthday.

His legacy

Wilson Hall, a residence hall at Iowa State Universitymarker, was named in his honor. His home, The Farm House marker, now on the Iowa State University campus grounds, has been a National Historic Landmark since 1964. Wilson has also been commemorated in Washington, D.C.marker by a bridge linking the U.S.marker Department of Agriculture Administration Buildingmarker to the U.S.marker Department of Agriculture South Buildingmarker across Independence Avenue.


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